Written by: Wendy Mass
Young children likely believe that the way they perceive letters, numbers, and sounds is the same way that others do. It would be hard to imagine any different as a young child—especially if the experiences you have are all that you know. By the same token, those who do perceive letters, numbers, and sounds the same way as the majority of those around them have a hard time understanding what it must be like for those who do not. A person cannot truly understand what it is like to have a disability, unless they have one. The best that we can do as educators and parents is to promote awareness and to teach understanding and compassion.
Have you ever heard of the condition known as synesthesia? Prior to reading the novel, A Mango-Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass, I had not heard of this condition. Synesthesia is a rare condition that is basically joined perception of the senses. For example, one with synesthesia may associate different colors with different numbers or sounds. In this case, every time the number 4 is mentioned or seen, a person with Synesthesia may associate the number 4 with the color green or the smell of chocolate. This is an involuntary neurological response of the senses and can be different for each person experiencing synesthesia.
It is not until the protagonist, Mia, is in the third grade that she realizes that other children do not perceive letters and numbers the same way that she does. After being called up to the board to do a math problem, Mia tries to write the numbers in the colors that she sees in order to help her solve the problem. As she is doing this, her teacher believes that she is fooling around and is annoyed with her for wasting time. In a long embarrassing moment between the teacher and Mia, the children end up laughing and calling Mia a freak, and the teacher gets tired of the nonsense and ends up sending Mia to the principals office. She states, “Numbers don’t have colors, they simply have a shape and a numerical value, that’s all…” A Mango-Shaped Space takes us through the experiences, both positive and negative, that a young girl Mia deals with as she learns to cope with who she is and discovers that she is not alone.
Within the first three pages of the book, Wendy Mass brings our attention to the importance of awareness. It is disheartening to read about the teacher’s reaction to Mia’s problem. It only took one event that lasted less than 3 minutes to completely destroy Mia’s perception of herself. Nobody believed what Mia was saying about the colors to be true. They all thought that it was nonsense—and Mia was forced to deal privately with this condition until she was thirteen.
Wendy Mass won the Schneider Family Book Award, which is given to an author or illustrator that “embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.” Mass does not have synesthesia, nor did she originally know anyone with the disorder. In the FAQ section of her website, Mass states that her inspiration for the book came from reading another book titled, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, by Dr. Richard Cytowic. She mentioned that she found the book fascinating and it was at that moment she decided to create a fictional character that would have this condition. She did do a lot of research on synesthesia and even attended meetings of the American Synesthesia Association. Although she did not originally know anyone with the disorder, she was fortunate to meet many wonderful people who shared their experiences with her and helped her understand what Mia may have been going through during school.
Mass develops the character of Mia very well and she is one that anyone could relate to. Teenagers are trying to find their place in the world during the difficult years of middle and high school. This happens regardless of whether or not you have a disability. Mia is a character that struggles with the day-to-day problems that most children face. She had difficulty with friendships, relationships with boys, prioritizing, getting along with her siblings and her parents, among other struggles.
I have been shown the video, F.A.T. City on a couple of different occasions during my teaching career. This video gives perspective on what it is like to be a child with a disability in the classroom. It allows teachers to, “walk a mile” in the shoes of those who have a disability. It is a very enlightening video and helps us as teachers realize that we need to be more aware of the different disabilities and struggles our students are facing. It provides awareness that will hopefully prevent any incidents from occurring that are similar to Mia’s third grade experience.
Although four years had passed and it seemed as though everyone else may have forgotten, Mia still had not forgotten the dreadful day in third grade when she realized she was not like everyone else. These negative memories can last a lifetime and it is important that children and adults alike are made aware of differences and learn to not only accept them, but to appreciate them.